Eppler propped up his offense on Aug. 31 — the last day to add players who could be eligible for the postseason — by trading for outfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips, adding firepower to a lineup led by the peerless Mike Trout. But the rotation has stayed in constant flux.
Only one pitcher has thrown 150 innings — Ricky Nolasco, whose earned run average is 5.06. Elbow trouble cost Garrett Richards five months and ended the seasons of J. C. Ramirez and Alex Meyer. Another starter, Andrew Heaney, is out with a sore shoulder, and the Angels plan to replace him with a procession of relievers, as they did in a seven-man, tag-team victory on Sept. 15.
Given all that, it is no surprise that the Angels have set a club record for victories by relievers. Their bullpen has been fairly stable, with five pitchers working at least 55 games. The staff has been helped greatly by impeccable team defense, which Fangraphs ranked as the second best in the majors, behind only the Boston Red Sox.
“We laid the blueprint out in the wintertime, as far as understanding there’s a run-producing aspect and a run-prevention aspect,” Eppler said. “Let’s try to grow the distance between those two variables as great as we can.”
The Angels’ two best defenders, according to Fangraphs, have been shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Martin Maldonado. Eppler acquired Simmons from Atlanta before last season, and Maldonado from Milwaukee last winter.
Those moves and others might help the Angels squeeze into the playoffs, if they make the most of their remaining games against Houston, Seattle and the Chicago White Sox. If they make it, the Angels could meet a fitting opponent in the American League wild-card game on Oct. 3 — the Yankees.
“We benefited from Billy’s baseball I.Q. for a long time, like the Angels are now,” Cashman said last week. “I’m not surprised by any success they have, because they hired the right man, and they will benefit for a long time from that decision.”
A Button Becomes a Gold Glove
Sure, he lacked the balletic grace of Byron Buxton, Kevin Pillar or Andrelton Simmons. But Nick Pivetta, a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, might have made the catch of the year during his team’s recent four-game series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With two outs in the sixth inning on Monday, the Dodgers’ Austin Barnes smoked a liner back up the middle at 106 miles per hour, too fast for Pivetta to get a glove on it. Instead, his button-down jersey made the play for him.
Had Pivetta been pitching for the Phillies from 1973 to 1986, when the team wore zipper-front jerseys, this would have been impossible. But Barnes’s hit nestled inside Pivetta’s shirt, entering between the buttons, and Pivetta stayed upright. He reached inside his jersey, found the ball and flipped it behind him as he trotted off the field to end the inning.
“Actually, it’s funny,” Pivetta told reporters after the game. “My last game in junior college, on one of the outs, I had a ball similar to that. I caught it in my stomach. That one hit my forearm, then my stomach. So that’s the second time it happened to me. I didn’t even see the ball.”
Technically, Pivetta needed to throw the ball to first to complete the out. According to Rule 5.09(a): “A catch is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession.”
But the umpires ruled it a catch, the Dodgers did not complain — and it was clearly Pivetta’s night, anyway. He has a 6.57 earned run average for the season, but on Monday he beat the three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw to earn his sixth victory.
Stamina in the Bullpen
Few playoff teams have a reliever quite like Chris Devenski of the Houston Astros. Devenski has thrown about 80 innings in relief this season, more than any other pitcher for a division-leading team. He could be the Astros’ answer to Cleveland’s Andrew Miller as a critical multiple-inning weapon for the playoffs.
Devenski worked more than one inning 17 times before pitching in the All-Star Game, his first, and he has done so far less often since then, which should keep him rested for October.
The Astros acquired Devenski to little fanfare in a 2012 trade with the Chicago White Sox for Brett Myers, a veteran who was pitching his last full season in the majors. Devenski, who had been drafted in the 25th round the year before, was in low Class A with a 4.23 E.R.A.
“I had a lot of failure in the minor leagues, and I always learned something from it,” he said this summer. “It helps me become better. The pitcher I am now, he goes out there and he dominates. There’s going to be rough times, but that’s part of the game.”
Devenski dominates with a changeup he learned in high school but took many years to perfect. He recognized the pitch as his ticket to the majors shortly after the trade, when he used it for about 60 percent of his pitches in a 16-strikeout, Class A no-hitter. Even as his E.R.A. swelled to 6.60 the next year, Devenski kept faith in the changeup.
“I had to just continue to throw it and throw it and throw it,” Devenski said. “It’s like if you’re digging for coal and you’ve got diamonds on the other side of the coal and you continue to dig and continue to dig. What if you give up, and you were two inches away from the diamonds? It’s kind of like I did the same thing with my changeup. I was going to continue to throw this and throw this and throw this until something good came out of it. I always knew I could develop it into something nasty.”
Devenski throws his changeup around 83 miles an hour, and his fastball around 94. He throws both pitches about 40 percent of the time, and also uses a slider. It is a rare three-pitch mix for a reliever, but useful for one who may face hitters more than once per game.
Devenski spoke with Miller about their roles at the All-Star Game, and the two could meet again in the playoffs.
“Not many teams, if any teams, have what he can do for them right now, his flexibility, his length,” Miller said in July. “I don’t think anybody’s looking forward to facing the Astros for a lot of reasons, but he’s certainly part of it.”
The Detroit Tigers’ Matthew Boyd lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning last Sunday when Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox lined a two-out double to right. That was the sixth time this season that a no-hitter had been broken up in the ninth inning or later, the most in the majors since 1989.
That season, Kirk McCaskill, John Farrell, Tom Browning, Dave Stieb and Nolan Ryan — twice! — lost no-hitters in the ninth. Ryan had thrown five of his record seven no-hitters by then, Browning had tossed a perfect game the year before and Stieb would get his no-hitter the next season.
This year’s group has never pitched a no-hitter. After the Miami Marlins lost a combined no-hitter by Wei-Yin Chen, Brad Ziegler and Kyle Barraclough in April, Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz, Colorado’s Kyle Freeland, Washington’s Gio Gonzalez, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Rich Hill (in the 10th inning) and Boyd joined the list.
Only one pitcher has finished a no-hitter this season: Miami’s Edinson Volquez against Arizona on June 3. Alas, the season did not end happily for Volquez, who two months later underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career.
Speaking of Volquez, 34, how many pitchers have experienced as many extremes as he has? Besides his no-hitter and surgeries, Volquez has been traded for Josh Hamilton (in 2007); made an All-Star team (2008); served a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs (2010); lost his playoff debut, when Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter against him (2010); started on opening day for three teams (San Diego in 2012 and 2013, Kansas City in 2016, Miami in 2017); started Game 1 of the World Series the day his father died, then started the clincher five days later (in 2015); and in various seasons led his league in earned runs, walks, hit batters and wild pitches.